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365+ Books & a Few Good Stories

“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.”

― Cornelia FunkeInkheart

I read every day for a year. I have been a voracious reader all my life but events eroded my time and my enthusiasm and I read very little for a number of years, until last October. In the middle of a collapsing life in a collapsing civilization, with panic keeping me up all night, I began staying up half the night to read and blog about books. Some of those books were sheer crap. Some were really really pedestrian. Quite a few left me wondering how they ever got published. A far smaller number stunned me with their inventiveness, imagination, eloquence and brilliance. I met memorable characters. I waded through mudflats of stereotypes, caricatures, and just plain stupid attempts to put people on the page–lots of fails. Reading so much made me hungry for really good books.

Discovered anew there are no new stories. I can predict plots fairly well–comes of having been a bookish child–and I honed that skill appreciably by reading every day. The daily word count forced me to finish a lot of books I would have abandoned and sadly set aside big fat tomes I would have worked through for as long as it took. I’m happy to have freedom of choice back. But I’m interested to note that I’m a lot calmer about the wreckage of the world I knew than I was last year. There are other worlds, just next to this one. We can choose to inhabit them if they appeal to us more. It is necessary to acknowledge that, though, and most people would think it madness. Read enough books and madness comes to resemble sanity.

I will keep reading but I’m shifting the lion’s share of my time, outside of the typing-for-pennies work, to my own writing. I have no illusions about what it takes to make up stories but I’m well aware now that the time is a luxury. Aware as well that time is the one irreplaceable currency. There are many ways to access better worlds than this limited and shabby one–music, theatre, art, sailing, contemplation, reading books, writing them.  A book is a passage to somewhere else it might be worth exploring. Capturing stories in words is a bridge to a world you create–and who can say it is any less real than the dreams and nightmares we trudge through now?

“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
― Voltaire

Once upon a time, I thought the challenge of reading a-book-a-day would save me. Instead it reminded me that I am perfectly capable of saving myself. And I have stacks of unread volumes piled all over the house for the hours every day when I will gratefully open the covers and step inside a story. Humans are narratives. That’s not a metaphor. We are just a bunch of swirling molecules we perceive in the shape of a story. Every single person–told or unrecounted–is a story.  That’s enough reason for hope.

“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” 
― Miguel de Cervantes SaavedraDon Quixote

The end.

Green – Laura Vaccaro Seeger

One of the most empowering gifts you can give to a child is the skill of paying attention, of noticing. A child’s context explodes when she notices the life around her deeply. Simple enjoyment of very small and enormously significant things multiplies exponentially. People who are aware are smarter, cope better, appreciate what is real and live richer lives. That’s why the paint box is better when it contains many hues, not just primary and secondary colors. Several shades of green, for instance.

Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s beautiful picture book Green is spare on language but overflowing with so many permutations of green that you will be fascinated and return to examine it again and again. Green contains 33 words (I counted) but you could spend hours lost in them, exploring the circumstances in each gorgeous picture that cause the green, that alter the shade, that contribute to the intensity. Green is characterized, embodied in a slow inch worm, incongruous on a zebra and wholly absent in the landscape around a snowman. Observation leads to discussion–which improves vocabulary, understanding of basic science, mastery of abstract concepts like fierce and faded, acknowledgement of complexity–how can green be khaki, which is almost brown, and lime, which is very yellow? There is a whole world in green–and in this book.

Clever cut-outs add to the magic by revealing butterflies and moths, inchworms,  a nightlight, a flower, and even adjectives made of reeds and splotches that, isolated in the cutout, form words. Give a kid something brilliant to contemplate and you honor the brilliance that is in that child. Green does that. It will wake up your half-dead imagination, too. I wish all books for children were this amazing and rewarding.

Green   Laura Vaccaro Seeger | Roaring Book Press   2012

Strega Nona, Her Story – as told to Tomie dePaola

I read a couple of children’s books today–most were disappointing. Really good kidlit is HARD to write. At least it’s hard to get it right. Tomie dePaola does. He’s as reliable as the pasta that bubbles out of Strega Nona’s magic spaghetti pot. Strega Nona, Her Story as told to Tomie dePaola features some of the homeliest females (infant to crone) and the simplest, most benign description of witches anywhere. It’s a very matter-of-fact tale of commonplace magic and how satisfying that can be.

When Nona is born, her Grandma Concetta declares the baby will be a witch. Straw from the old broom or something. Grandma is the village witch and, as Nona grows, they take walks to gather herbs and weeds for lotions and potions. Concetta treats everything from baldness (rosemary) to headaches (wild garlic) to warts and worries. She serves Nona and her friend Amelia, a material girl in strega training, steaming bowls of pasta from a big black cauldron. And she promises to teach Nona the secret of the pot one day.

Nona becomes a witch and is ever after known as Strega Nona. Her empathy and natural curiosity deepen her skills and understanding but, for a long time, Grandma Concetta smiles and keeps her secrets about the pasta pot.

Lovely book about females in a traditional culture who have their own life path to travel, even as the community supports them. The art is vivid and childlike–dePaola’s witches all have major honkers and ready smiles. Extremely non-threatening witches, important healers in their villages and towns. Everyone has a place in this story, even the goat.

Strega Nona: Her Story   Tomie dePaola | G. P. Putnam’s Sons   1998

Be Here Now – Ram Dass

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I have to read the Bhagavad Gita for some work I am doing so I decided to imbibe Ram Dass’s classic Be Here Now first. It’s very trippy, in every sense. He begins with his successful persona as Dr. Richard Alpert, ivy league professor, therapist, sought-after speaker and, in his own mind, complete phony. A few years of experimenting with hallucinogenics and the worldly success has morphed into a fired academic and jaded and confused seeker with little to show for all his experimentation. Then he takes a trip to India–why not? Nothing else going on for him–and he eventually encounters an enigmatic holy man who bcomes his guru.

Alpert’s story is a real break-down/breathrough. He loses his entire Western identity. All his training and career achievements mean little in the spare hermitage he embraces. He can’t fathom how people know what they know and he doesn’t seem to know anything himself. Yet he emerges as someone sure of who he is and what he must do to live an authentic life. He becomes Ram Dass, a teacher who embodies selfless service and speaks out for economic integrity, environmental stewardship, compassionate hospice care and living with awareness.

Be Here Now is the hippe-trippy introduction to yoga and the profundities of Hindu spiritual philosophy and it is very accessible and fun to read–even if the book’s design does mark it as an artifact of its times. Nothing wrong with artifacts. This one has wonky type, sideways page layouts, psychedelic art, colored lettering and line drawing, a center insert of paper-bag-brown pages and no concessions to conservative sensibilities.

The first section is Alpert’s journey to discover himself and become Ram Dass. Part two, the brown center pages, is a compendium of Hindu philosophy that is very extensive–lots of the yoga principles succinctly summarized, many quotes to reflect on, a smorgasbord of spiritual teachings from a number of religions–I suspect it seemed pretty far out when first published but much of it is familiar now.  A “cookbook” follows this section with recipes for how to achieve your own journey to enlightenment, or at least a high degree of understanding. Ram Dass describes the practices to follow and elucidates concepts from the sanskrit that may be confusing to the uninitiated. He winds up with a fourth section, a long list of books that are useful, rated according to value–very helpful. 

Be Here Now (actually, the proper name seems to be Remember, Be Here Now but I’ve always known it minus the Remember…hmmm) gives you the flavor of the 70s and the timeless wisdom of the East in one fat paperback.  It is a bridge to more direct teachings and original sources that are tougher to access. This is not your trendy post-modern yoga studio with its abs-flattening fitness routines. It’s the raw, real deal from the ancient sages. I enjoyed being reminded of how a certain type of book looked back in the days when you had to haunt alternative bookstores to find such unconventional reading material. And this one is still as plainspeaking and true as it was when written. You can’t be in the past, so might as well let that go as it is already gone. You can’t live in the future unless you are some weird hologram–and who is to say your vision of the future will ever exist anyway? What you’ve got is now, right now, this moment. Just. Now. Right here. Be cool with that and you could figure out the rest of it, too.   

Remember, Be Here Now   Ram Dass | Crown Publishing   1994

The Bookstore in the Basement

The Upper West Side has a hidden second-hand bookstore that appears and disappears like Howl’s Moving Castle and holds a continually replenishing trove of treasures beyond counting. Twice a month, usually on a Wednesday and a Saturday, although on no fixed schedule, its doors open to the public for a few glorious hours of bargain-price bibliomania.

Pick a category–you’ll find a shelf or a section of titles: fiction, science fiction, fantasy, science, sociology, philosophy, psychology, gender studies, travel, technology, medicine, mysteries, space, poetry, foreign languages, art, photography, self-help, religion. There are CDs and DVDs, even a custom oak bookcase and viewing pedestal for a complete Oxford English Dictionary.  And the children’s books range from classics to current favorites with plenty of I Can Read books for beginner book addicts.

Children’s books, classics to contemporary

The secret stash of books totals about 40,000 volumes each sale, although you probably won’t find multiple copies of any title at one time. Regulars know to bring a sturdy canvas satchel and cash–temptation always overwhelms good sense and an armload of books is heavy to haul home. So, if you are dedicated to the acquisition of delicious books and happen to be in the vicinity of the St. Agnes Library on Amsterdam between 81-82nd, check out the flyer on the door to find the next shop-op in the basement (Wednesday, May 30 from 1:00 – 5:00). There are no overstuffed chairs and bookstore cats to add atmosphere but you could always repair to a nearby pub to peruse your intemperate purchases and use some of the money you saved for a pint or two. Literary New York, paradise for savvy book junkies.


The Calder Game – Blue Balliett

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The Calder Game is the third in Blue Balliett’s series about some eccentric Chicago middle school kids who solve mysteries using an idiosyncratic belief in coincidence and their own curiosity. Chasing Vermeer was the first book to introduce Petra who has a magical relationship with language and Calder who keeps a pocketful of pentominoes and is a mathier kid. Together they made a formidable, if sometimes perplexing team. A great fascination of book one was the puzzle around the Vermeer paintings and it led to perusal of the Vermeers in our own museum across the park—a delightful follow-up to an engaging book.

In The Calder Game, the third member of the trio, Calder’s friend Tommy who was introduced in book two (haven’t read it) gets his ink. I don’t find him a very compelling character—in fact, he is anything but appealing. Picks his nose, for one thing, and is too easily ruffled. But his presence does take some of the action away from Petra to her detriment. She seems a less strong character in this episode and that is a loss.

The story begins as Calder takes a trip to Oxford with his father, after a disastrous class excursion to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art to see an ambitious Calder retrospective. Calder, who was named after the artist, lugs his pocketful of pentominoes with him and is stunned to find a giant Calder sculpture installed in the medieval town square in the small village outside of Oxford where he and his dad are staying. Dad takes off for a conference at the university, leaving Calder to sightsee on his own and things pretty much go downhill from there.

A village full of suspicious characters resents the sudden appearance of a sculpture no one wants, ominous looks and coincidences shadow Calder’s tourism, nearby Blenheim Palace has a legendary maze that hides ugly secrets and ancient landscaping that might be deadly, a fat cat shows up rather often at auspicious moments. Then the Calder sculpture and Calder himself disappear. You need a powerful willing suspension of disbelief to puzzle through the rest of the story. Petra, Tommy and a neighbor are flown over from Chicago to help in the search for Calder. The neighbor has thoughtfully procured some sort of Chicago official police detective IDs for them so they can ignore police lines and sleuth at will. They come and go day and night without much supervision. Calder’s father and the neighbor believe the children will solve the mystery of the disappearances.

There’s a lot of adventure and the kids do act independently. The resolution of the various riddles—and crimes—is tricky to guess at because it doesn’t/can’t make sense until the explanations at the end. A bright boy like Calder doesn’t know that a cave with an entrance and cracks in the rocks isn’t a sealed oxygen-free chamber. Americans are boors and bad guys before they are heroes and okay after all. It’s very puzzly—a hallmark of these books—and it was entertaining. But the illogical bits were very distracting and I wish they were more seamlessly incorporated. Nice to learn about an artist, a math tool that looks like a toy, a few museums and botanical gardens. But Chasing Vermeer was a better book—Calder and Petra were a tough team together. Add the nose-picking Tommy and, not so much.

The Calder Game   Blue Balliett  | Scholastic   2008

The Expanded Quotable Einstein – Alice Calaprice

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Albert Einstein was a prolific writer and commentator and eminently quotable. So a collection of his quotes is extensive enough to describe a life. The Expanded Quotable Einstein, compiled and edited by Alice Calaprice, is like a multilayered box of chocolates, tempting to dip into again and again. I picked it up while killing a day trying to clean all the crud out of my computer so it would operate at something swifter than near-death speed. The book was perfect for those long stretches of malware and spyware searches that served to overheat the laptop and not do too much else.

One of the first treats you encounter is a black-and-white photograph of Einstein sitting on a porch in Princeton wearing a huge pair of fluffy slippers. Meant to balance the hair, I suppose. There are portraits of him with his second wife, with Rabindranath Tagore and Charlie Chaplin, at the helm of his sailboat, with family and a pet dog. His violin gets a page as does E=mc² in his own handwriting. But the words are the stars of the volume and he had something to say about almost everything.

On life: “If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or objects.” That one seems to hint at Einstein’s troubled personal relationships—he was not always as benevolent to his family as he appeared to outsiders.

On his habit of playing the violin to unwind in his kitchen in Berlin—a room he credited with excellent acoustics: “First I improvise and, if that doesn’t help, I seek solace in Mozart. But when I am improvising and it appears that something may come of it, I require the clear constructions of Bach in order to follow through.” Einstein once told an interviewer for The Saturday Evening Post that he would be a musician if he were not a physicist. But, included in his remarks about music, are a casual rhyme about not inflicting your playing on your neighbors and a lament to Queen Elizabeth of Belgium that his technique had deteriorated with age.

He had a less than egalitarian view of women, in his own words, believing them to be obsessively concerned with domestic affairs and not much competition for men in matters of science. (Paradoxically, in 1918, Einstein spoke out in favor of mathematician Emmy Noether’s appointment to a university faculty, a position she was denied because of her gender. This was a departure from his usual championing of the superior brains of men.) Some things seem to have escaped his enormous intelligence entirely. His dismissive attitude toward women mirrored his aversion to marriage, which didn’t keep him from trying it twice: “Marriage is the unsuccessful attempt to make something lasting out of an incident.” Even a genius can’t get everything right.

With age, Einstein’s “wisdom” took on its own life. He was quoted and misquoted everywhere, much to his dismay. He refused, as he had his whole life, to romanticize himself and delighted in the pithy comment, humorous or serious.

“I have reached an age when, if someone tells me to wear socks, I don’t have to,” he remarked to a friend. To his biographer he declared in 1952, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

Curiosity about Einstein the man can be satisfied by a careful read of Einstein, the writer and speaker. From love letters to his first wife to vexation about the puzzles of quantum theory and the frustrating search for a unified field theory that would answer all the questions, Einstein revealed himself in words. The ones collected here are fewer than an infinity, but they will do for a start.

The Expanded Quotable Einstein    Alice Calaprice | Princeton University Press   2000

A Visit from the Goon Squad — Jennifer Egan

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I didn’t read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad when it hit the big PR fan and exploded all over the place. Didn’t read it when it won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Didn’t read it when it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Wish I hadn’t read it now. Didn’t like it for a whole bunch of reasons and all the hype and prizes just exacerbated my disappointment.

The characters are cliché, tawdry and forgettable. Did not care about a single one. Sasha, the klepto, is supposed to be simpatico and funny, I guess. She wasn’t. There was nothing original about her sticky fingers and the discussion of it was boring. Bennie, the washed up music producer, is cheesy, sort of repulsive and completely unappealing. A revolving cast of cameos is hard to keep track of, indistinguishable, and resembles caricatures more than characters. The book attempts to sum up an era from about the 1970s to some time in the not-too-distant future–about 2020 or so. There doesn’t seem to be anything redeeming about the souls Egan creates to people this history. Her take on all of us is decidedly unflattering–bunch of self-absorbed, not especially bright losers–people you wouldn’t want to share a cup of coffee with.

The text is a miscellany of authorial styles pasted together with school glue that doesn’t hold. There are copious footnotes in some chapters, truncated texting in others. A 75-page (hard copy edition) graphic section that is supposed to be a PowerPoint composed by a 12-year-old girl to capture the dynamics of her family got lots of critical attention. It doesn’t work as a diary or a PowerPoint. No 12-year-old girl would ever produce anything like it—not even on Facebook, a venue a kid would be far more likely to use in any case.

The bits—more like not-quite-connected short stories—were a grab bag of events, from a jungle encounter with a genocidal general to a legendary outdoor concert that was pure marketing job start-to-finish. There was a tenement apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen, a young girl giving a blowjob to a music producer in the middle of a rock club concert turned rowdy, cocaine snorting, pot smoking, Xanax popping, ad infinitum. In a story, things should be there for a reason–the development of the characters or the plot maybe? Hey, I live in New York City where there are still a few misplaced clawfoot tubs in tenement apartments. The demise of the music business and ubiquitous marketing–sizzle instead of steak–are not news. Neither are aging washed-up teen celebrities, genocidal generals, drug abuse or environmental fail. I was not wonderstruck at all these shiny discoveries.  Readers are not rubes and I didn’t find the inclusion of tech-speak or the stereotypes clever or compelling.

Aaarrgh. Why did this book make me so mad? Egan can string words together but the narrative seemed glib and superficial–I kept waiting to be entertained or enlightened. Telling stories should be about giving gifts in exchange for time and attention. That is the point of art—to offer something important, not to show-off.  A Visit from the Goon Squad isn’t positioned as a piece of assembly-line fiction designed solely to sell boatloads of copies in airports and big box stores and it isn’t a book-like object notable only for the celebrity name on the cover. It arrived with certain expectations–a good read maybe? Something novel and thought-provoking? I’d like to think the literary establishment cared more about readers when it conferred its accolades and prizes. In this case, I guess you really can’t judge a book by the awards and blurbs on its cover.

A Visit from the Goon Squad   Jennifer Egan | Alfred A. Knopf  2010